Essential German Grammar – Verb Conjugations

Every German verb has an infinitive form. You need to know the stem of the verb to be able to conjugate the verb. The stem is the part of the verb without the infinitive ending.
For most German words this is quite easy because most of the verbs are formed in the same way. The verbs spielen (to play), lachen (to laugh) and rennen (to run) all end in –en, which indicates the basic infinitive form.

Example:

Laufen (to run) | Infinitive: laufen | Stem: lauf
Geben (to give) | Infinitive: geben | Stem: geb
Lachen (to laugh) | Infinitive: lachen | Stem: lach

To use the appropriate form of the verb in a sentence, you must conjugate it according to the right noun phrase or subject (as in English: The boy runs).

The German language differentiates between two types of verbs: weak and strong. Weak verbs have a dental consonant (the tongue is pressed against the upper teeth) that is inflected and changed. Strong verbs have a vowel gradation (examples are sing, sang and sung).

Although there are some exceptions, both of these verbs have a regular system that can be applied to almost all the verbs. The most well-known exception is the verb sein (to be), which is highly irregular. Sein is an essential part of German grammar because it is used to form the past tenses.

The verb: sein (to be)

German English
First-person singular Ich bin I am
Second-person singular Du bist You are
Third-person singular Er/sie/es ist He/she/it is
First-person plural Wir sind We are
Second-person plural Ihr seid You are
Third-person plural Sie sind They are

Present tense

The present tense is the easiest of all tenses because a single rule applies to all regular verbs. The following chart shows you how to form the present tense with different strong German verbs.

gehen (to walk) schreiben (to write) schwimmen (to swim)
First-person singular ich gehe schreibe schwimme
Second-person singular du gehst schreibst schwimmst
Third-person singular er/sie/es geht schreibt schwimmt
First-person plural wir gehen schreiben schwimmen
Second-person plural ihr geht schreibt schwimmt
Third-person plural sie/Sie gehen schreiben schwimmen

For regular strong verbs, use the following rules:

The present tense can be formed for all strong regular verbs by using this rule.

Irregular Verbs:

The German language also has several irregular verbs. Even the present tense is irregular, although some of the suffixes are quite similar to the ones above. The following three irregular verbs have a vowel change in the stem (of the second and the third person singular).

lesen (to read) sprechen (to speak) laufen (to run)
First-person singular Lese spreche laufe
Second-person singular Liest sprichst läufst
Third-person singular Liest spricht läuft
First-person plural Lessen sprechen laufen
Second-person plural Lest sprecht lauft
Third-person plural Lessen sprechen laufen

There is no pattern that can be followed to form the present tense for irregular words. You must learn each word individually. Once you get a sense for the German language and irregular verbs, however, you will find it much easier to form the irregular forms of certain verbs.